Nation Sport has chronicled African sporting achievement, failure and aspiration for the last 60 years. As a child of this continent and as a witness to many of its great sporting moments, I present my list of what I think have been defining moments in our life.
It must go without saying that the single most significant event was not a purely sporting one but the catalyst that enabled our sportsmen and women to compete in the international arena as free people under their own flag and to the beat of their own national anthems.
This was independence. Between 1960 and the present, 45 out of Africa’s 53 countries achieved independence, including 15 in 1960 alone. South Africa is a special case because its independence from Britain in 1931 meant nothing to its black majority. To them, that came in 1994 with the collapse of apartheid.
Africa is today a net exporter of sporting talent to the world. Many Kenyans, sports and non-sportspeople alike, have taken on foreign citizenship in an effort to escape their dire economic straits.
Tomorrow and the day after, the Nation Media Group is hosting a conference in Kigali, Rwanda, dubbed “The Next 60 Years in Africa.” It goes without saying that just like the momentous events of 1960, the most significant thing to shape the lives of our sportspeople will again be political.
I know this is counter intuitive but sometimes I think the people we need the most to help us reach that great depth within us and think again is our enemies. Our friends tend to say only the nice things we want to hear. Sometimes we need our enemies’ brutal plain speaking.
In a 1967 interview with American author William F. Buckley Jnr, the racist Prime Minister of South Africa, John Vorster was asked: “Mr Vorster, what you are saying is either a commentary on the paradise of South Africa or on the misery of the countries they (African immigrants) flee from …”
Vorster replied: “It is not a question of a paradise or a misery … it is just that as far as the whole of Africa is concerned, it has got a backlog of development … the point is, and I am not saying it in a derogatory sense at all, but for generations to come, on account of the fact that they multiply by over three per cent as compared to ours of little over one per cent, their difficulty will be that they cannot create sufficient avenues of employment.
“And therefore for generations to come, and I want to make it very clear that I am not saying this in a derogatory way but in a practical realistic sense, their main export will be labour.
“Because they cannot employ their own people, it so happens that until that time that they have developed to such an extent that they can employ their own people, for generations to come, they will be forced to look to South Africa and other countries to employ their own people.”
If the words of this racist have proved prophetic, the challenge for the next 60 years in Africa is to make a course correction, to understand that no words can explain away the blight on the conscience of all people of goodwill that is the daily reality of our peoples enduring the desolate wilds of the Sahara desert before boarding vessels similar to those that carried their ancestors to slavery across the Atlantic only to end up in detention camps in the shores of a Europe they hope will give them the possibility of a normal life. A Europe that their fathers gave their lives to be free from.
The unspeakable humiliations that Africans go through as they seek visas to Europe and America only to arrive there to be treated as a sub species of the human race should come to an end.
They will not be ended by people like Vorster, but by Africans themselves. Africa is our home. It is here that divine providence in its unfathomable wisdom put us. It wasn’t an error. It was a challenge to see it for what it is: the best place on earth that anybody could ask to be born.
Africa’s first Olympic gold medals
At the Rome Olympics in 1960, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila became the first African man to win an Olympic gold medal. He ran barefoot after the shoes he had purchased before the race gave him blisters.
It would take another 32 years before Bikila’s compatriot, Derartu Tulu became the first African woman to make a similar achievement when she won the women’s 10,000 meters gold medal in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Bikila’s victory introduced Ethiopia and later Kenya, as the world’s dominant powers of distance running. Several Ethiopian and Kenyan women have also replicated Tulu’s success and look set to continue doing so in the years ahead.
The 1976 and 1980 Olympic boycotts
Africa started the era of using sport as a political bargaining tool and then cried foul when others followed its example. In 1976, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, which was not a member of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, sent the All Blacks to a tour of the then apartheid South Africa.
African countries asked that New Zealand be excluded from the Montreal Olympics, a demand that the International Olympic Committee declined.
As a result, most of Africa withdrew from the Games. Four years later, the then Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the United States led a worldwide campaign to boycott the Moscow Olympics.
Many countries allied to it, including African ones that didn’t want to but only reluctantly fell into line, joined the US.
Another four years later, the Soviet Union staged a tit-for-tat boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, this time also sucking in unwilling but helpless African countries.
On both occasions Africans couldn’t relate to the problems between the two superpowers. By the time this era was ending, many careers lay in ruins, including that of our recently returned legend, Henry Rono.
The 1993 Zambia air crash
Every once in a while, the world of sports is brought to a standstill by great tragedy. None stands out worse during the last 60 years like the one that hit Zambia, one of Africa’s proudest footballing nations.
On April 27 1993, a plane carrying the national team crashed in Libreville, Gabon, killing all on board. The team was travelling to Dakar to play Senegal in a World Cup qualifier.
In 2012, the twists and turns of history took Zambia to within two or three kilometres of the place where the plane crashed into the sea as they battled Cote d’Ivoire in the final of that Africa Cup of Nations. Zambia won — their first and only Nations Cup title and had to retrace the route of their lost compatriots, but now in poignant happiness.
The spectre of terrorism
The global phenomenon of terrorism reared its ugly head in African sport during the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations staged in Angola.
Flec, a separatist group fighting for the independence of the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, took advantage of both the gathering of so many foreigners and the less than optimal security measures of the hosts to spray a bus carrying Togolese footballers with machine gun fire. The Angolan bus driver was killed on the spot, rendering escape impossible. The team’s assistant coach and a television sports journalist, died of bullet wounds the following day. Togo withdrew from the competition and security precautions in subsequent competitions went a notch higher although the causes of terrorism remain work in progress.
Moment of racial reconciliation
The Springbok is the emblem of the South African rugby team. Both the emblem and the team was beloved of the white minority, especially the Afrikaner-speaking Boers.
Both became one of the most potent symbols of hatred by the black majority to whom they symbolised oppression. But Nelson Mandela turned all this on its head, a testament to his huge moral authority.
As South Africa hosted the 1994 World Cup to mark their readmission into the international community, Mandela requested that the Springboks be allowed to keep their name which the newly-empowered blacks wanted done away with.
He, himself wore a team shirt. His presentation of the World Cup trophy to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar after victory over New Zealand’s All Blacks is one of Africa’s most iconic moments.
Africa’s latest scourges — mega corruption, doping and gambling
In Kenya, hundreds of millions of shillings have been sunk into unusable stadiums but the people responsible are tapped on the wrist and given a wink. To all practical purposes, they are above the law. As a result the current rains have turned our stadiums into dams. Even Moi International Sports Centre, the country’s main stadium and parts of whose roof are now waterfalls, does not have a functional playing surface.
Meanwhile, two decades ago, it would have been inconceivable to hear of a Kenyan athlete convicted of doping. Today, after a world record, you celebrate but bear in mind that some lab tests could overturn that result. At the same time, world class footballers, who know more than most about the sheer hard work required to get to the top, are encouraging the youth to sit back and hedge their bets on life. All this is the dark new face of African sport. If nothing is done about it, the big words being spoken tomorrow will remain just that — words.
It’s Africa’s turn
To resounding African disappointment, Franz Beckenbauer’s Germany won the right to host the 2006 Fifa World Cup. The apparent unfairness -— “If I wasn’t German, I would have voted for South Africa,” Beckenbauer said — forced Fifa to decide that from then moving forward, the tournament would be held on a rotational basis among its confederations. Morocco and South Africa put in their bid and Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, still enjoying its post-apartheid honeymoon, easily bested the North Africans. This was a moment of singular African pride remembered well to this day.
Eliud Kipchoge and Ineos 1:59 Challenge
Since I started writing about sports more than 40 years ago, I have not come across an event that should have a more positive impact on the everyday lives of our people like this one. It was a lot more than a sports event. It deserves a full column on its own. Stay here for it next Saturday.